My sister, Lisa Baird, 5 Years later – posted 10/19/2014
It has now been 5 years since my sister Lisa died. My family organized a memorial event on November 22, 2009 at the Germantown Jewish Center. Many people attended and quite a few people offered remarks. On this occasion I wanted to remember Lisa by reprinting the remarks of Lisa’s friend, Sherri Grasmuck, as well as my own remarks on that day. I also wanted to add a very artful video tribute to my sister that was created by my son Josh. This also was shown at the 2009 memorial event. The video is about 10 minutes long. The link is http://vimeo.com/7766076
I would like to begin by publicly thanking Deena for the generous way she opened her home to so many of us who loved Lisa and felt the need to be very close in the final days of her life and for the attentive and brave way she confronted the unbearable process of watching her second child die in her presence. Lisa felt that it was in her mother’s care that she wanted to have her final days and to have that relationship affirmed by those final days spent together. Thus we are even more grateful that you shared these treasured moments and your beautiful canopied bed with so many of us.
Though I have known Lisa for more than 30 years, she remains a mystery to me. Since she died I have been trying to get my head around that. I knew her in Texas in overlapping political circles, and lived with her at two different times in Germantown in the early l980’s, once as single women and once when she lived with John and me in a quasi-group house and through the years between then and now. Lisa was a very happy soul back in those early days. We shared many happy solutions to life’s challenges.
Rather than repairing or repainting ugly chipping walls in my house, we drove to French Creek State park with John and painted on huge rolls of paper, murals of bold red and black streaks. We then nailed them over all the questionable surfaces of my house, deluding ourselves that it worked aesthetically.
We had the good fortune to wear the same shoe size. So when we were shifting from hippydom to our early professional jobs, we managed to share for one solid year, on alternative days, the one acceptable pair of shoes— we had. A pair of flat heeled, blond Spanish leather pumps. We mourned that lost capacity when she moved out- a sweet kind of shoe intimacy.
Another challenge related to our commitment to shared meals in that group house. In those days, Lisa was one of the worst cooks imaginable. There was not a noodle casserole, one of her favorites, which she did not overcook by at least an hour. We coped by giving her one less night to cook than the rest of us. She loved to assure me later in life that she had overcome that early disability. But since one of her favorite contributions to potlucks was strudel made not by her but by Deena, her mother, my doubts lingered.
When I think of Lisa I think of polka dots.
There is a lot to celebrate about polka dots
and a lot to share in that spunky, playful, out-there side of Lisa.
Think about it.
Polka dots are perky, mischievous and stick together, devoted to collective solidarity, ready but huddled on the same surface.
Their mere presence, especially if they appear on someone’s grandmother’s underwear, can bring a smile, like Lisa–an announcement that frivolity is allowed.
Her gray blue eyes, those golf ball pink cheeks, curls and more curls.
The way she leaned forward to tease. Lisa was game.
Always happy to see you, taking time to remember details of our lives that so many others seemed to forget.
Polka dots and Lisa in their essence just make us smile.
Polka dots also huddle together, ready for action and but clustered together on the same surface.
They dramatize, like Lisa, solidarity. Lisa’s was the human kind.
She cared about and was interested in human dramas. No conversation with Lisa failed to include a detailed account of someone else’s life. She knew a lot about the people she worked with, carried those stories around with her. Recently she hired my daughter, Tessa, to do some official translation at a deportation hearing and what struck her most, even more than the intensity of the drama involved was how much time Lisa spent beforehand offering details of the lives of her clients so that she would see them through their human yearnings, even though it was not essential to the task of translating their words.
Lisa enriched so many lives; she had a powerful urge to have children, and to love them deeply, to make them know this. She certainly succeeded in this just as she succeeded in enriching, improving even rescuing the lives of so many others, clients and friends alike.
Polka dots and Lisa, make us smile and feel their solidarity.
But polka dots also float in a mysterious darkness, something below the surface that contrasts with the happy dance. Lisa could delight us with her stories, but they also served to direct our attention away from her present, from her own unresolved personal struggles.
Lisa was a master at looking away from her present.
Listening to Lisa sometimes I wanted desperately to stop her from talking about so many other people, to admit in a shouting voice that she deserved more personal happiness, to face what she needed to do to rescue her heart from manipulation, to rescue herself from the need to fight for her right to love her children in an unfettered way. But Lisa was a master of camouflage, she would trick you, she would turn that gaze on you, on your needs, making you collude in turning away from her deepest longings.
Lisa said to me at the end of her life, “Sher, you know that I’ve has always been my own worst enemy,” her form of, personally taking on the blame for not having gotten her house more in order. Though my head tells me otherwise, my heart rebels and leaves me with a lingering despair that perhaps more could have been done to help her feel more entitled to a defense of her own welfare. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the haunting feeling that we did not find the way to help her rescue herself in a manner similar to the way she rescued others. But Lise was a master at directing our and her own attention toward the happy polka dots and away from the darker isolation of her life. But both were part of the truth of her existence.
I hope Molly and Lou will take comfort in the years to come in the depth of her love for them, by remembering how much meaning and joy they gave to her existence. She held onto life so tenaciously precisely because of them. I am profoundly grateful to Lisa for the way her friendship enriched my life. I share the profundity of the loss that her family feels. But it is a small comfort to me to realize that Lisa is also now free from the burdens she privately endured as she sparkled, danced and delighted the lives of so many of us.
This event stirs up many feelings. Pride in the person my sister was. Horrible sadness in the tragedy of her death. Regret at what we will not be able to share. And fear that life will go on its normal way with Lisa forgotten.
I was recently told that in early Polynesian culture, the world was not divided up into the living and the dead. Rather, there were the dead and forgotten, the dead and remembered and the alive.
I am glad we are here today remembering Lisa and honoring her memory. Lisa was an unsung heroine, although I know she would have resisted that characterization. She attended to the small daily tasks of family and the injuries to her clients with zealous devotion. But she also had a bigger picture view that she remained true to. Lisa represented the best of the New Left generation.
In looking through Lisa memorabilia at my mom’s apartment, I came across her old Baldwin School yearbook from 1970. The quote under her picture read, “Hello I love you won’t you tell me your name.”
That totally evokes the Lisa I knew my whole life. Lisa’s magic was her warmth and capacity for empathy. That was a great connector with all kinds of people from all walks of life. She redefined the attorney client relationship to something warmer than the norm. To resurrect an old phrase, Lisa could feel your pain. Instead of turning away from other peoples’ pain, she took the person in. Lisa was about as down-to-earth as you could get.
That empathetic quality was at the heart of Lisa’s politics and her lawyering.
I am reminded of a quote from a beautiful book, Song of Ariran, about a Korean revolutionary, written by Nym Wales, Edgar Snow’s wife.
“I like unhappy people. I understand them. Suffering creates character and human feeling. Cheerful, happy people seem like idiots to me. They seem to fly over the surface of life and never to know its meaning. They are not close to the heart of humanity but are remote and isolated. Perhaps this is why they can remain cheerful.”
Lisa did know about suffering and pain. She was schooled in it and maybe that is why she was close to the heart of humanity. She never seemed to do anything the easy way. I think this was true in many areas of her life. I wish it had not been so true.
I have to say that in her last weeks I never saw even an iota of self-pity. She faced her death with bravery. On mornings when she got up and felt a little better, she would say to me, “I don’t think I’m going to croak today.” Her focus remained her kids and her clients.
Her selfless quality drove me crazy because so often she left herself out of the equation. That is very unusual in this culture, but Lisa was stubborn and pretty much went her own way.
Marion Wright Edelman has said that “service is the rent we pay for living”. I think that was Lisa’s ethic.
She was very precocious politically. She figured out capitalism at age 16. She made it her business to educate me. Lisa was a critical thinker, but she was always engaged in practical politics to help poor and oppressed people. Her activism was lifelong and it never stopped. Lisa never surrendered. I am glad that she got to see Barack Obama elected President.
Lisa had a lighter side with a fine sense of humor. I wanted to mention some random memories of happy times:
* playing stair games at 284 Melrose Road when we were little
* Lisa’s boffo performance as the Artful Dodger in Oliver singing “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” at Friends Central School in 4th grade
* her encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway show lyrics and her frequent singing demonstrating that memory
* her horseback riding, especially with my Dad
* her being Winnie captain at Camp Red Wing where she had fabulous good times and adored being a camper
* her falling asleep in my bedroom early doing her Baldwin homework because she was a morning person
* her long distance swimming, especially with Joyce Abrams
* bobbing contests with me at the Longport Seaview pool in Longport NJ
* just being at the shore in NJ with Rob, Mom and Dad
* teasing Lisa for her whole life with her affectionate way of responding to my teasing by saying, “Shut up, you asshole!”.
To Molly and Lou, I want to say your mother unconditionally adored you. To say she was proud of you does not do justice to the depth of her feelings. She kvelled talking about both of you. Your happiness was probably the most important thing in her life. She was a warrior for both of you and I hope the memory of her love can be a source of strength for you.
To my mom, I want to say thanks for opening up your home and allowing Lise to have as humane an end to her life as possible. Mom, you have always been a tremendous, caring mother. Lise, Rob, Rich, and I have been and are blessed to have you as a mom.
To Lisa’s friends, I again want to say thank you for your amazing support and help during this most trying period. Tish, you were an angel. Bob, John and Sherri, Bebo, and Eva, I will always be grateful for your stepping up at the hardest times. Kate Winkler, I also want to mention because she was there in the trenches for Lise. I think Kate gave Lisa courage to go on and vice versa. I know I am not naming others who I should name and thank. Please do not be offended. Lisa had a wide circle.
Finally, I want to say “Lise, I will miss you.” I was incredibly lucky to have a sister like you. You taught me so much and helped me in a million ways. I miss the simple act of calling you up everyday and chatting. Please know that I will miss you everyday I am alive.